Here come the Russian girls:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly...

5. 7. 2009 / Ema Čulík

This year Karlovy Vary has a whole section dedicated to female Russian filmmakers, entitled A Female Take on Russia/ Rusko v ženském rodě , dubiously subtitled Russian Mermaids, Ruské rusalky. The section itself is interesting to me not only in principle, as, as I am well aware, the concept of feminism has a weak effect, if any, on Russia, but also in practice, I am one of 29 girls in our year-group of 38 at film school in St Petersburg.

There, we don't have to fight for attention, most likely due to our advantage in number. But in the Russian festivals, the likes of Mikhailkov and Bondarchuk Jr, prevail, both makers of extremely heavy-handed and not particularly perspicacious films.

And so, do the ladies' films stand up for themselves? Having seen three Russian films by woman-directors I can say that it's looking pretty good.

The first was a film that was released in Russia rather a while ago and which received wide recognition in Cannes -- Vse umrut, a ja ostanus'/Everybody Dies but Me (2008). Following in the tradition of Larry Clark's Kids (1995), of showing the terrible things that young people get up to, director Valeria Gal Germanika made a film that portrays parts of the teenage experience brutally honestly. It's about three best friends, Vika, Katya and Zhanna, who are in the 9th grade (that is, fifteen), and on the brink of venturing onto unknown ground, and making earth-shattering discoveries. The film begins with their headmaster's announcement that there will be a disco in school. No alcohol allowed. No friends from other schools. The rest of the film follows the girls and the terrible effects that the coming disco has on them.

The girls are what Americans might call 'BFF!' - 'Best Friends Forever.' When Katya, the most outspoken of them, gets into a conflict with a teacher and rebels by leaving the class, the other two follow her out and on the staircase they promise to be faithful and true to each other for ever and ever no matter what. The rest of the film follows how this promise is broken again and again by each of the three.

Germanika's picture is a part of the huge modern tradition of teenage movies, about coming of age and having your eyes opened on the world. These films are extremely popular as they provide a risk-free experience of adventure, where the worst possible consequence of an action is grounding or detention. And teenagers, fresh faced and lithe, are glamorous and very nice to look at.

Not here though. Any glamour that these girls have is strictly inside their own heads. The castles that they have built in the sky are dismantled brick by brick. They want to be beautiful and chic. So they dress up in ridiculous frocks and cover up their youthful prettiness. They want to mess around with a boy. Boys are manipulative, give them drugs, and take advantage of them in a dirty basement. They want to control the world. But they end up creating huge messes around themselves.

The film, though fictional, is shot in a documentary style that shows the girls in very frank detail. Intimate close-ups have an almost claustrophobic effect. The camera follows them in such a way that we feel that someone is watching this all happen. And yet, there is no comment. We are shown it all from the girls' point of view. When Katya's cat dies, they have a funeral. While burying the unfortunate pet and shedding a tear for him, they discuss the upcoming disco and sucking boys' tongues. Having placed the cat in the ground, Zhanna takes a bag of live goldfish and pours them into the ground, covers the whole thing in soil and they continue. The camera does not linger on the fishies. There's no judgement of, "Look what they're doing!!" We are shown their actions as they are - their skewed logic is always followed to the end, they are permitted to make their own mistakes.

So what, teenagers make mistakes. Why should we care? Well, I think this film has a clear message for adults too. I was very struck by the girls' oath of loyalty at the beginning of the film, which is followed by their blatant disregard for each other. Each of the girls betray the others, they steal their boys, abandon each other in times of need, and refuse to stand by each other to avoid being associated with a troublemaker. Not only that, they systematically alienate anyone in their lives who could help them -- teachers, parents, fellow students. We all make mistakes in life, but our friends and family are there to help us through it, and we should value them and return the favour. 'Everyone will die, but not me'. The girls think they're invincible, but they're very much not.

The second film of the female trio is markedly different. Nebo. Samolet. Devushka / The Sky. A Plane. A Girl . (2002) is a love story about lonely adults. This film is a remake of the 1968 Soviet hit, Eshe raz pro ljubov/ Once More About Love , directed by Georgij Natanson, about an emotional air hostess and a confident physicist, who fall deeply in love and fall deeply apart -- for no reason and for every reason. Director Vera Storozheva remade the film for a new generation, one that is more free, and yet more lost. The physicist is now a television news correspondent (how could a physicist be sexy now!), where before people danced to skiff music, the spaces are now empty. Poetry readings are gone, as are songs, conversations are stripped down. Added are interesting unconventional shots, a greyish-pastel blur over the whole film, creative sound design, striking composition, and sharp, neat cutting. She translated the film into the contemporary language of film, which likes starkness, abstractness. And that works. Before the characters were lonely in the crowds, whereas now their solitude has been concentrated and not a soul is to be seen around them.

The most important difference between the two films, though, is not one of style, but of substance. The characters are drawn completely differently. Georgij Natanson's Natasha is more tightly wound up. She is aware of how she should act and is very polite, very precise, very cordial. His Yevdokimov is jovial, erudite, perceptive. Natanson's man is certainly in control. Whereas Storozheva perhaps forgot to develop her character Georgij (his name is no longer Evdokimov). We don't really seem to understand why he is chasing the girl - from the start we can see that they really don't have anything in common. In Natanson's film they have nothing in common...except a passion for each other. They are touched by each other's emotion. Evdokimov was reserved, but through it we could see how Natasha warmed his heart. But Georgij, if he likes her, has no idea why. And it's not the actor's fault, he tried very hard to create this man. Unfortunately, though, he was given only a two-dimensional character to work with. I think Storozheva forgot to tell him why he was doing all of this. All the attention was on the Natasha character, now called Lara. In the 2002 version of the film, we feel that she dominates. Though it is Georgij that first approaches her, we get the feeling that if she had told him to shove off, he would have obliged. Lara is no longer precise and cordial. She still has that emotional charm, but now her scattiness has taken control. While before Natasha felt a duty to behave properly, nicely, Lara now revels in being strange and emotional. There is a certain self-indulgence in her behaviour, and as she is almost the only fully-drawn character in the film, the whole story seems permeated by this self-indulgence. When she says "Oh, I'm going to leave you!" we feel like it's a whim, whereas Natasha, uttering the same phrase, thought that she was doing what she felt was right.

This film is the pet project of screenwriter and actress Renata Litvinova. She proposed the idea to Storozheva, wrote the screenplay, produced, and played the lead role. And though this was only her second film, she has gone on to overshadow several more films since then. Litvinova splits audiences. She is extremely famous in Russia, known by all not only as filmmaker, but television presenter and part-time fashion designer. Half of Russia loves her, finds her charming, and the other half finds her very artificial, and extremely irritating.

After the showing of this film, I asked Storozheva what exactly she liked about Litvinova's acting style, as it is supposed to be one of the attractions of this film.

She told me that since Litvinova was not trained as an actor (but screenwriter at the Moscow Film School), she is natural and her charm appeals to the viewer and endears him to the characters.

I found this answer rather empty -- not only as it doesn't really say anything about the story of the film or the characters themselves, but also as this is the same answer that all fans of Litvinova seem to give. And the problem is, it is not clear what exactly is natural about her acting style. She speaks in a high-pitched, breathy voice, cocks her head to one side and flaps her hands emotionally. Her television manner is not nearly as extreme. She seems to be caricaturing herself using these put-on airs, and one has to ask what effect this is supposed to have in a romantic drama, where we should sympathise with the characters in order to experience their love story.

This film is stylish and beautifully shot, but with such inaccessible characters, the film leaves you feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

This wasn't the case in Anna Melikyan's 2004 début film Mars . Last year Melikyan made ripples all over Russia, and also in KVIFF, with her film Rusalka/ Mermaid . Her début about a provincial Russian town Marks, shows great promise and was a proof of the good things to come. It's a light-hearted and yet meaningful picture about the separateness of the Russian provinces, but mostly about people's dreams and search for meaning in a country which has recently stripped itself of the ideology that it lived in for the last seventy years. The letter 'K' fell of the town's neon sign, and Marks (Marx) became Mars. The 'K' has fallen off Russia too, and it has become Mars.

We follow the boxer Boris Nikitin, who has arrived here by train, obviously running from something in his native Moscow. He stumbles about this peculiar town, which is full of eccentrics. He is a sort of ingénue character. Though he is a boxer, his physical strength has been destroyed by his fights and sleep deprivation. Though he is financially well off, he is soon stripped of his wallet, and has to rely on the good nature of those around him. Though he theoretically has the big city to escape to, a series of accidents and acts of sabotage never allow him to actually leave the place.

The town's inhabitants include Galka, a plain single mother who dreams of moving to Paris to be with her pen-pal-fiancé; her ingenious but money grabbing little daughter Nadya (short for Nadezhda, meaning 'Hope'..); her grandparents, who live in a house covered in flowers, but haven't spoken for years and don't remember why, and call each other 'aristocrat' and 'proletarian'; the 'local beauty' café owner Ljudmila, who dreams only of bedding Putin ("He's so sexy!"); 'Miss Braid', a local celebrity, who has the longest braid in all of Russia and yet only wants to have her life to herself; Greta, a redhead librarian who wants to have a beautiful, eventful life and learn about the world; and the young passionate Grigorij who wants to marry her and live in the house he's building on the hill After a childhood accident when a piece of glass fell into his eye, Grigorij sees the whole world in rose, literally. And he runs around town trying to make reality correspond with the way that he sees it. All of these people are full of dreams -- and many of them achieve them. Galka and Nadya go to France, and live happily ever after (eventually) with Galka's fiancé, who, much to their surprise, turns out to be black, but is a very good husband and father; Miss Braid hacks off her hair and runs away to Moscow, and though life there isn't smooth, she is happy with her choice... But what about Grigorij? When his plan to impress and propose to Greta goes horrible awry, his house burns down, he is imprisoned, and she, giving up all hope, throws herself off a bridge. He goes on living, but in a dream. Before, when Greta was nearby, he dreamed of marrying her, and now that she is gone, he dreams of them being together.

The film does not draw a Utopia. Melikyan is hopeful about possibilities in post-Soviet Russia, but not naïve. People are disorientated, discombobulated -- hence the dream-like filter and the brightly coloured picture. But things are changing. The whole town is in scaffolding -- things are being done. And Melikyan reassesses the stereotypical symbols of her country. She light-heartedly makes Putin into a sex-symbol, the stereotypical Russian maiden runs away from home and starts making a living for herself. This film, besides being really good fun, is extremely encouraging. It is good to see Russian artists interpreting their own fate with a sense of humour, and not fatality and melodrama.

These three women have produced extremely interesting films, which have perceptive analysis, a light touch, originality -- and most importantly, all of them show movement. The ability to move forward and reassess what is going on in a new light -- this is exactly what Russia needs.


Obsah vydání | Pátek 3.7. 2009